Are all representations inherently flawed?

This is actually one of the main issues that have bothered me about anthropology since the beginning of the class and continues to bother me now. I can't come to any easy conclusions about it and I am still hesitant about the idea of anthropology as a discipline in general. I am uneasy about studying a "people" as a whole only through a textbook, photographs, and some films (although I do feel that a visual ethnography seems to be more representative than something textual -- we were shown "Born into Brothels", a famous visual ethnography about children growing up in prostitute slums in India, for one of my Sociology classes, and I thought that spoke for itself even though it was ultimately still filtered through a certain lens) -- perhaps this is because (coming from a literary background) I am strongly aware of how representations (of all kinds -- text, film, photography) can be so easily misleading.

I am strongly influenced by the literary/historiographic perspective that all narratives, and therefore all representations (including -- especially, perhaps -- ethnographies, which are "factual"), are limited and often flawed, and ultimately there is no way to gain "absolute" or complete knowledge about anything -- especially with something as dynamic as culture! Firstly, ethnographies are written from an epistemological structure that is rooted in years of Western tradition. Although an outsider might be able to attribute meaning to a certain cultural process, this meaning is constrained (by the academic trappings of the anthropologist, who has, as it has been repeatedly noted, mostly been white and male, and who has also traditionally been educated by a Western system) and subjective (ultimately, it is a singular and interpreted perspective. The anthropologist himself/herself attributes meaning to culture processes which might differ from the meaning the people themselves construct out of the cultural process -- a little like mirrors held up to reflect more mirrors!).

The idea that culture can be condensed into a single and definitive book (such as Lee's ethnography) is very odd and is almost problematic to me. If there is only one representation of an entire culture filtered through the lens of one or two people, how true can it be?

Secondly, there is the idea of power, wherein anthropologists, by virtue of that fact that they have the ability to represent others through books, articles, videos, documentaries and so forth, already seem to hold a disproportionate amount of power over the people they study, especially if these groups of people are small, marginalised, not literate, and speak a rare language. What choice do local people have in representing themselves? Are anthropologists held accountable to portraying them as they *wish* to be portrayed? I think it was Evans-Pritchard who characterised the role of an anthropologist as a translator of culture -- an idea which I thought was beautifully expressed, but fundamentally problematic because of how culture must necessarily be refracted (and perhaps distorted) through the lens of the translator. Culture, meaning, narrative, and representation are all such slippery things; sometimes it feels hopeless to try to make sense of them especially when they interweave and interact with each other.

I am deeply conscious of how colonised peoples used to (and still are) be represented in the narratives of the colonisers -- state policy, in common cultural ideas held of the "natives", in novels (such as Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" and perhaps even Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird"), film (where do I even begin -- how about the history of film in Singapore, where the British censored films that they thought contained women who were too scantily clad for fear they would "excite" the natives, and films where there was inter-ethnic/racial marriage so as "not to give the natives ideas" and ensure they did not "rise above their stations"?) and artwork of all kinds. I was recently on a road trip in New Zealand and was shocked when, passing by a sign that said "Maori fine art", my (white) friend scoffed and said "that seems like a contradiction in terms," something which myself (Chinese Singaporean) and my best friend (Sri Lankan Tamil -- we are both aware of how 'non-white' people are often treated in widespread media) responded furiously to. Despite the fine intentions of Evans-Pritchard and many other pioneering anthropologists, I am acutely aware of how anthropologists are themselves products of a cultural process and how this disrupts representation; I am also aware of how the local communities have little leeway in negotiating with, refuting, or subverting a representation they feel is unfair to them.

Some may argue that these concerns are better founded in the past and are no longer as salient in our current-day situation, but I question if that's true. The terms we use to describe our society are still reminiscent of hierarchy and unilinear evolution (and I uncomfortably ended up using some of these words for my group wiki project, too). Why do we call ourselves "modern" or "current"? Why do we call other communities "primitive" or "traditional"? Why are they lumped under the term "World Cultures"? What does "indigenous" mean anyway? What are "preindustrial" and "postindustrial" societies -- as if society is "advancing" toward a "postindustrial" state and there is something that comes 'before' industrialisation -- an implication that non-industrial states are not fully advanced?

Even if a multitude of anthropologists from different backgrounds play a part in surveying a local group, how 'representative' will their representations be -- if taking the point of view that all representations are limited anyway? And how do we go about circumventing this idea -- like Prof Thompson said, it seems silly to say that we shouldn't explore other, more (geographically) "isolated" cultures. Can we in our current highly globalised and technologically-driven age construct a space where local people can represent themselves? This to me seems the best way to go about it. If it were me, I certainly would prefer to write a novel or make a film about my own people -- and not have others do so for me.